This year, the news coming out of CinemaCon bears watching with a closeness usually reserved for healthcare bills.
The prime topic sounds as wonky as they come: theatrical windows. That cozy phrase, which describes the grace period between a film’s theatrical release and when it’s made available for in-home consumption, has been weaponized. Studios are mulling the real possibility of closing theatrical windows in favor of allowing the audience to pay super-premium prices to watch first-run blockbusters at home.
If that’s the case, those windows are also poised to slam down on indie fingers — but the industry still has the opportunity to yank them out of the way. What it can’t do is believe that somehow the industry will remain the same.
This time last year, Sean Parker’s The Screening Room created an uproar with his startup that would give home viewers day-and-date access. Today, all indications suggest the question is no longer if the studios will permit first-run home viewing, but when and how. They face the fact of piracy, an audience that’s in love with their smaller screens, a dearth of investment, and now it looks like even China’s billions of would-be moviegoers may not be enough to close the gap.
Finally, just as email made the post office less relevant, history has shown it’s all but impossible to resist the siren’s call of an easier delivery system. When the studios go down this path, it stands to make “I’ve got to see it” become “I’ll get around to it.” It’s impossible to imagine that mindset won’t trickle down to the specialty-release calendar.
It’s not like indie filmmakers aren’t already doing this for themselves. In the last two months Netflix released three Sundance 2017 titles, Grand Jury Prize winner “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore,” “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” and “Burning Sands.” All were in-house productions, which meant they were available to millions of homes — but it’s anyone’s guess as to the audiences they found.
Amazon Video Direct, meanwhile, has launched its Film Festival Stars program, which has a menu of no-haggle prices they’ll pay for films out of Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto. It’s already nabbed a dozen movies out of Sundance, all of which will premiere on Amazon. Some will receive theatrical releases outside the Amazon deal; for example, “Manifesto,” starring Cate Blanchett, will go out through FilmRise.
And finally, there’s the incredible list of creators that have signed up with Amazon for high-profile, non-theatrical projects, including Yorgos Lanthimos, Nicholas Winding Refn, and now Barry Jenkins, who will follow his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with a miniseries based on Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.”
It’s impossible, and unnecessary, to fault any of these filmmakers for taking the streaming route; they see where the business is going, too. However, while streaming TV series create a lot more watercooler chatter than movies nowadays, the marketing benefit for independent films that are scooped into the Netflix or Amazon maw is still unclear.
Specialty theatrical distribution has the capacity to make a film seem, for lack of a better word, special. Miramax built a business, and an industry, around that ability; A24 has quickly become the new master. Soon, Neon and Annapurna will try their hands as well.
And then there’s the epic work done by more than 100 arthouse theaters across the country devoted to the experience of watching great cinema. Some are nonprofits, like The Loft in Tucson; others are cottage industries of their own, like Alamo Drafthouse. They all specialize in the care and feeding of independent film, whether it’s with filmmaker Q&As, repertory programming, or environments designed to charm the viewer as much as what’s on the screen itself. They stand to lose most of all if audiences abandon the theatrical habit.
That’s where the future of theatrical windows becomes most frustrating. If Disney decided, say, to permit former indie filmmaker Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” to go day-and-date with VOD, the results would be fascinating but there’s no doubt that studio’s marketing juggernaut would remain very much in place. The outlets might change, but the awareness wouldn’t. Something that big is impossible to miss, no matter what the platform.
The same isn’t true for indie film. Struggling for attention has always been its birthright, but it’s hard to imagine what that looks like if those movies sit cheek by jowl with the thousands of titles available online.
Whatever the answer might be, this isn’t a death spiral. Indie film is comprised of a wily bunch, and now is the time to lean into the changes that are coming. Take the security gates off the windows. The sooner it recognizes what the majors have been slow to embrace — that the change roiling this 106-year-old business is not exceptional, it’s the norm — the sooner it will secure their future within it.